Omicron is definitely contagious, but what does that really mean?

The explosive increase in U.S. coronavirus case counts is raising alarm, but some experts believe the focus should instead be on COVID-19 hospital admissions. And those aren’t climbing as fast.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, for one, said Sunday on ABC that with many infections causing few or no symptoms, “it is much more relevant to focus on the hospitalizations as opposed to the total number of cases.” Other experts argue that case counts still have value.

As the super-contagious omicron variant rages across the U.S., new COVID-19 cases per day have more than tripled over the past two weeks, reaching a record-shattering average of 480,000. Schools, hospitals and airlines are struggling as infected workers go into isolation.

Meanwhile, hospital admissions averaged 12,700 per day last week, up 46% from the previous week, but well short of the peak of 16,500 per day a year ago, when the vast majority of the U.S. was unvaccinated. Deaths have been stable over the past two weeks at an average of about 1,200 per day, well below the all-time high of 3,400 last January.

Public health experts suspect that those numbers, taken together, reflect the vaccine’s continued effectiveness at preventing serious illness, even against omicron, as well as the possibility that the variant does not make most people as sick as earlier versions.

Even with that, more and more vaccinated people are coming down with COVID-19.

People might mistakenly think the COVID-19 vaccines will completely block infection, but the shots are mainly designed to prevent severe illness, says Louis Mansky, a virus researcher at the University of Minnesota.

Omicron appears to replicate much more efficiently than previous variants. And if infected people have high virus loads, there’s a greater likelihood they’ll pass it on to others, especially the unvaccinated. Vaccinated people who get the virus are more likely to have mild symptoms, if any, since the shots trigger multiple defenses in your immune system, making it much more difficult for omicron to slip past them all.